Category Archives: Travel

Morningside Begins its Comeback

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This original Morningside home was never in jeopardy. While larger than most of the 1930s-era houses, its Tudor style is typical.

Morningside recovered quickly after the defeat of I-485. Homes that had languished unoccupied for seven years sold at relatively high prices. Construction soon began on new, bigger houses on the vacant lots we had come to view as common property. This was the only drawback to the resolution of the conflict. My friends, my dog Popi and I had become accustomed to having the run of these quirky recreational areas during the day. The decaying houses were in a constant state of flux, offering new discoveries with every visit. A steady stream of odd objects and eye-opening reading material was left behind by other visitors. Vagrants obviously used the houses occasionally for drinking and sleeping, but they were almost always gone by daylight.

We loved the chaotic wildness of the overgrown lots, where we picked blackberries and flowers, gathered hickory nuts and cut holly in the winter for Christmas wreaths. We appreciated the accelerated pace with which Nature was reclaiming its space—the sturdy oak saplings that forced their way up through cracks in concrete patios, the ivy that pushed through crevices around windows to flourish in drafty old bedrooms. We roamed so freely among the ruins that we had begun to see it as our right.

Nevertheless we were respectful, not destructive, although we often confronted the appalling vandalism of others. Sometimes we found charred floorboards where fires had been set. Mantelpieces and chandeliers were ripped out and stolen. Windows and bathroom fixtures were smashed, purely for fun. We had known many of the former residents; we had been guests in these homes. A cloud of memories swirled around me each time we set foot in the house where my friend Deborah had lived. We had played together there before the road became a threat. I remembered the kitchen, where we shared after-school snacks, as cozy and inviting. It was now ill-used and desolate, its remaining appliances wrenched from the walls. Graffiti streaked across the ceiling of her former bedroom.  Her family had been forced out early in the fight. I wondered where they had gone. How bitter was it for them to know that they had been uprooted for no reason?

On our street, where no houses had been condemned or torn down for the highway, many owners began renovations that they had put on hold. Building permit signs were hammered into front yards and the first of a long parade of Porta-Potties appeared (the ultimate in-town status symbol). Our family embarked in earnest on removing the applied veneer of the early 1960s (linoleum tile, gold carpets, faux wood-grain wallpaper) that masked classic elements of our house. Morningside, its future at last assured, was on the up and up.

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Another of Morningside’s grander original homes, built in the Spanish Colonial style. While it dates from the 1930s, it has had several successive renovations.


The sun hits the eaves of one of Morningside’s smaller, more-typically sized homes.

Morningside, Virginia-Highland, and the Fight Against I-485

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During our time in Atlanta, my daughter and I usually spend part of one day browsing the eclectic shops of the Virginia-Highland neighborhood. Developed in the early 1900s as a “streetcar suburb,” with trolley lines to downtown, Virginia-Highland is now one of the city’s most inviting and vibrant sections. It wasn’t always this way.

When we moved to Atlanta in the late-60s, many such in-town neighborhoods were, to varying degrees, down at the heels. We found an affordable house in Morningside, which adjoins Virginia-Highland. Most Morningside homes dated from the 1930s. Small but well-built, many resembled English cottages. It was a neighborhood with great bones, but a bit tired and frayed. It had the look of a place whose heyday had passed. Most of our neighbors were elderly; Mama and Daddy were among the few young kids. Many homes were behind on routine maintenance. As anyone with a renovator’s soul and an affinity for hard work recognizes, this is the time to buy. Things will get better, my parents reasoned, and they would be instrumental in the upswing.

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The original marker denoting the boundary of the Lenox Park section of Morningside.

Virginia-Highland was shabbier at the time than Morningside; it was older and had had more time to slide into dishevelment. Both neighborhoods were haunted, now and then, by the ghost of a rumor that a highway was being considered in the area. My parents, and others new to the area, decided to regard it as neither likely nor imminent. But in the years to follow, the threat became all too vivid.

The temper of the times was changing.  Fear of inner city crime was mounting. The conflicts over school desegregation never turned violent in Atlanta as they did in some cities, but they prompted more homeowners to sell and flee to the suburbs.  Older neighborhoods like ours were increasingly branded by state officials as futureless pockets of urban decay. What Progress required, according to the Georgia Highway Department, was a multi-lane freeway to whisk city workers safely home in the evenings to suburban promised lands. The highway, named I-485, would cut a frighteningly large swath through the hearts of Morningside and Virginia-Highland. The ghost was real, and it meant business.

Almost immediately, the state began a fierce program of land reclamation to prepare for the road. Many elderly owners were frightened into accepting low offers for their properties, which were quickly razed or left to deteriorate, unprotected from nature and vandals. It was heart-renching when the moving vans arrived and the slow exodus of boxed-up belongings began.  It was heartbreaking when the “Condemned” signs were posted.  There were a few brave owners, however, who refused to leave, even under threat of legal action. Some of these determined residents remained in the homes they had built, even as they seemed poised to tumble down around them.

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A Morningside garden angel, in prayer.

I-485 appeared unstoppable once the demolition machines were roaring. It could easily have been declared a lost cause. But a coalition to oppose the road had taken root, and like those who refused to move, this group wasn’t afraid to persevere. Several young Morningside mothers, including Mary Davis and Barbara Ray, who were parents of my friends, played a crucial role in countering the conflict.  Energetic and zealous, they rallied their friends and neighbors. They formed the Morningside-Lenox Park Association specifically to fight the road. They explored various legal angles and kept working even as other groups lost hope. There were several points when it looked as though the fight was unwinnable. But each time they persisted; these women did not give up.  After a while, some of the most pessimistic among us began to glimpse the possibility that together, perhaps, we might triumph. And if we didn’t, it was certainly worth our best effort. As the coalition gained in strength and numbers, the tide gradually began to turn. After several years of closely fought legal battles and imaginative grass-roots efforts, the freeway was stopped.

At first it was hard to believe that we had won. We had lived with the fight, and with uncertainty, for so long, but now it was history. The reality of relief set in. Thanks to five fiercely determined young mothers, our homes and neighborhoods were safe.  Now it was time to start the clean-up. We would be here for a while.

Hot in the City, And in the Suburbs

Midtown Atlanta, seen from Piedmont Park.

A late-June visit to Atlanta has kept me from writing for nearly two weeks. I’m still attempting to swim against the strong current that is the accumulation of life’s daily minutiae after a vacation. I’m distracted by tasks I can’t quite seem to finish—laundry, bill-paying, preparation for Vacation Bible School at our church, the ongoing need to assemble yet another meal. Can it really be time to start dinner again? How is that possible? The dog fluff is collecting like tumbleweed under all the chairs, even though Kiko was at the kennel (Puppy Camp, we like to say) for the week. For now I will ignore the dust and debris, the disordered jumble of papers on my desk. I have a free hour or two while D is at a tennis lesson, so I will try to turn my thoughts to Wild Trumpet Vine.

Every year, shortly after school is out, D and I allot a week for visiting my parents. In past summers, our travels South have been marked by excruciatingly long airport delays: at the gate, on board, then back in the airport after deboarding due to sustained bad weather or mechanical problems. At this point we have lost all hope of ever flying anywhere. (See Fun with Air Travel, October 2011.) Planning for the usual unpleasant eventualities, we left early in the day, to allow a big buffer zone.

On this trip, astoundingly, all went exactly as it should have. If we had spent any more time leisurely munching our breakfast sandwiches in the tranquility of Dulles Airport, we would have missed our flight. When we made our way to the gate, nearly all our fellow passengers had vanished. It was beyond our wildest dreams that boarding would begin on time, as it was that the plane would take off immediately, as it did. We rejoiced in our good fortune, and in a perfectly uneventful flight.

In an earlier post (Fun with Ground Transportation, October 2011) I noted the difficulties that typically arise when my parents pick us up at the airport. There is the conundrum of locating the car in the ever-expanding parking areas of Hartsfield-Jackson, followed by stressful negotiating of the ticket booths, capped off by an alarmingly speedy drive home through Atlanta traffic. I also said that on my next visit I would opt for MARTA, the city’s rapid transit system.  And so, this time, we did. 

Another midtown view from the Park.

The day of our arrival marked the beginning of another heat wave, with the temperature in Atlanta on track to reach 105. Thankfully, the train station adjoins the airport, so we were able to postpone our foray into the oppressive heat. I am befuddled by ticket machines at transit stations; they always seem to be unnecessarily complicated. If I could confront those many buttons and questions in the privacy of my home, I would surely figure it all out, but in the hubbub of the station, I have some trouble. Fortunately D, like her father, excels at such puzzles, and with her expert guidance we quickly purchased two reusable Breeze cards. The train was cool and not especially crowded. The stops clicked by at a brisk pace: East Point, Lakewood, West End, etc. Mama and Daddy picked us up at the Arts Center, just a few miles from their house. The quick ride back was notable for its lack of cringe-inducing near brushes with death. MARTA is definitely the way to go.

H usually joins us for one weekend during our trip. To avoid taking a day off work, he generally schedules an evening flight. We have been picking him up at the Arts Center now for many years. He has finally learned to avoid provoking the ire of occasionally testy and sometimes drunken late-night MARTA passengers by not sitting, transfixed by his Blackberry, with his legs perhaps too outstretched or suitcase a tad too much in the aisle. His flight and train ride, like ours, were easy, on time and without incident.

The next morning, H’s parents called to check on us, their voices worried: Were we OK? Did we get held up by the storms? Did any trees fall on our house? We hadn’t watched the news or glanced at the newspaper, and so we knew nothing about the sudden monster winds that blew down trees and power lines across the mid-Atlantic. Incredibly, we had managed to get out of town before the storm hit. Our Virginia neighborhood, we soon learned, had been without electricity at that point for about 15 hours. Power in our area would be restored after almost three days, but many others suffered far longer. Lots of trees fell nearby, but none hit our house or did major damage in our neighborhood.

We experienced the suffocating heat in Atlanta, but only in short, bearable blasts as we hurried from car to house or other chilled interior. The parking garage at the Lindbergh Target, for example (where we went to buy my parents yet another DVD player—they are serial killers of these gadgets) felt like a furnace, but we had no need to linger there. Mama and Daddy, having spent the first portion of their lives without AC, now enthusiastically embrace a cool home environment. D and I typically have to forage in the attic for old sweaters and winter housecoats in order to be comfortable.

A week later, when I returned home to the task of discarding every last item in our refrigerator, it bordered on the enjoyable, so thankful was I that we had not been in Virginia to melt slowly along with our food. For those of you who were, I’m sorry for your misery.



A Few More Good Men: My Husband, My Daughter’s Daddy


My husband was a reluctant father.  Had it been his choice, he might be childless now.  He wasn’t certain that children were a crucial part of marital happiness.  I was convinced that they were, and I remained resolute.  When he saw that he had no choice except to cut and run, he came around to my way of thinking.  He would be the first now to admit that he was wrong.  All during my pregnancy, he was an enthusiastic, caring father-to-be.  And from the first moment he saw his daughter, he was smitten.  At that point he became a vigilant father.  He never let our baby out of his sight at the hospital.  Two newborns had been switched a month earlier somewhere in Virginia, and he was determined that we get home with our baby.  When a nurse wondered if our daughter’s inconsolable wails might be due to hunger pains, H gave her the supplemental bottle in the nursery.  He was there at the nurse’s side for the first bath, and he changed the first diaper.

We chose our townhouse because it was affordable and less than a mile from H’s office.  For the first few months H came home around mid-day for hands-on time with D. During her first week of life, it appeared that she was intent on blinding herself with her tiny, perfectly formed fingernails.  H promptly went to Babys ‘R Us and came back with preemie gowns with fold-over pouches on the sleeves to cover her nails.  Unlike many fathers, he almost enjoyed the endless rounds of shopping for baby gear. 

When D was about two months old, H began a Saturday-morning tradition that endures to this day.  He would pack up our baby in her car carrier, load up the stroller, shoulder the pastel-colored diaper bag and take her out with him for breakfast.  It gave me a welcome break.  By the weekend, as a new mother, I was often near the end of my rope. (See New Motherhood, An Uphill Climb, January 2012.) My husband got the chance to have his little girl to himself.  He loved carrying D through the mall, watching her gaze wide-eyed at all the fascinating sights such as lights and people.  He loved being seen with his beautiful baby girl.  He thought her especially cute during the time when her fine fluff of blond hair stuck straight up like the crest of a baby bird, just like his did at that age. 

H typically worked (and still works) long hours. For several years when D was young, H spent four days a week in Cleveland.  The only “up” side of this was his accumulation of enough airline and hotel miles to get us a nice week each winter at some spot in the Caribbean. Because he was away most of the week, Saturday morning became sacred father-daughter time.  D declined Friday-night sleepovers and Saturday playdates because they interfered with her breakfast with Daddy.  As she grew older, they added a follow-up activity.  They might try a new park or shop for a cool toy or gadget (remote-control car, water-balloon launcher, science kit) they could enjoy together.  Occasionally they’d go to Dulles or Reagan Airport to watch the planes take off and land.  Sometimes they’d ride Metro and let serendipity be their guide, deciding at the spur of the moment which stops beckoned.  Sometimes they simply got out of one train car and jumped back on another before the doors closed.  They would return from these trips excited at having discovered a great German pastry shop in Georgetown or a wild, enchanted-looking chasm at the Courthouse station.   

Typically, after breakfast these days, H and D go exploring off the beaten track.  They might follow new trails through the woods or take their bikes on the train and ride around little-known parts of DC.  Just last week they managed to get up to a rooftop restaurant with their bikes in tow.  They have been known to hike the overgrown areas under highway overpasses. H enjoys showing our daughter that any place, no matter how seemingly ordinary, becomes interesting upon closer examination.  At any random highway exit, wonders worth noting may be revealed if one simply looks. 

In our daughter, H got the adventurous, dare-devil child he had hoped for.  Several years ago, D was yearning for the thrills of a roller coaster, so they went to Six Flags and rode all the biggest rides.  When she wanted to try Go-Karts, he gladly took her, even though it meant driving to Maryland. On the rare times when I’m away for the weekend, H plans a Saturday chock-full of action.  One such day began at IHOP and concluded ten hours later at the Manassas Speedway.  My father was sufficiently impressed with the number of activities they tackled that he wrote them all down.  

Before the roller coasters, there were lots of merry-go-rounds.

My husband’s favorite outdoor activity, by far, is windsurfing.  He has been passionate about the sport since he first tried it as a teenager at a Cape Cod pond.  But because we don’t live in a prime windsurfing spot, his actual time out on the water is usually limited to vacations.  He has high hopes for D to become his windsurfing buddy, and she may not disappoint him.  Our Caribbean trips have allowed her to try it under idyllic conditions.  She is certainly her Daddy’s buddy when it comes to other water adventures.  At Cape Cod, they may rise at dawn and head to the icy water of the ocean to ride the waves on boogie boards. They share a fierce love of water parks, and the steeper the slide, the higher the drop, the better. 

H windsurfing at Cape Cod.


D’s first time up on the board.

H and D both love going fast over water, whether it’s flowing or frozen.  Having grown up in Rochester, H is an expert on snow and snow-related activities.  He finds the ideal sledding spots, and he makes sure we are equipped at all times with a variety of sleds.  Much to D’s delight, her father is a skilled builder of intricately tunneled snow forts and gargantuan snowmen.  My appreciation of snow is more aesthetic, and I quickly got my fill of playing in it with D when she was young and H was away.  To me, the ordeal of getting her into her snowsuit was mentally and physically exhausting. To H, it was simply the necessary groundwork, paving the way for fun. 

Lucky for me, H was home on this snowy day.


Snow-tubing with Daddy. I went on this excursion, and it proved to be exhilarating. Growing up in Atlanta, I didn’t know the thrill of good sledding.

Skiing, of course, is another of H’s favorite activities.  He started D on the slopes when she was in preschool, and now she’s an accomplished skiier.  Once or twice a year, they head out while it’s still dark in order to arrive at a ski resort in Pennsylvania just as it opens.  As is the case with the water parks, if at all possible, I remain home with Kiko.  

Our daughter is lucky that she has one parent who is still willing to go to great lengths for fun and adventure.  The older I get, the more I can relate to my grandfather’s desire to hide away somewhere quiet and read.  I was not always this way.  I’ve gone to water parks and skiied with H. I briefly considered trying windsurfing, many years ago, in an effort to impress him. As a teenager I was a capable water-skiier, and I still love roller coasters, particularly the tall, smooth, steel ones.  But now, the pay-off involved in most of these activities just isn’t worth the preparatory effort, the travel time, or the risk of injury. I admire my husband for many reasons, not the least of which is his continuing faith that a memorable day with his daughter is worth any amount of struggle and strife. 

Sightseeing at Cape Cod, near the Highland Light. This is the kind of peaceful outdoor activity in which I like to be included.


Best of Budapest, II

Back on the bus, we saw many more Pest landmarks, such as the immense Hungarian Parliament building, its tall central dome surrounded by a flurry of lacy Neo-Gothic turrets. In a drastic juxtaposition of scale, not far from the Parliament, is Budapest’s intimate and moving Holocaust Memorial. Sixty pairs of 1940s-style cast iron shoes are anchored to the promenade along the Danube. They memorialize the Jews who were shot near the spot during World War II by Fascist militia. Before the execution, the group was ordered to remove their shoes. Their bodies fell into the river and drifted away.
Fisherman’s Bastion.
We crossed the Chain Bridge toward the hills of Buda, where our next stop was the Citadel.  One of the city’s highest points, it affords sweeping bird’s-eye views. From the Fisherman’s Bastion, a Neo-Romanesque collection of gleaming white towers and ramparts, we began another walking tour. Immediately adjacent to the Bastion is the Matthias Church, known for its single, ornate tower. The first church on the spot dated from the eleventh century, while the current building was begun in the high-Gothic style of the 14th-century and completed (and heavily restored) in the 19th. The nearby bronze equestrian statue of St. Stephen, patron saint and first king of Hungary, looks as though it may have escaped from Heroes’ Square. Street entertainers tend to cluster around the statue’s monumental base. A falconer with his falcon was commanding some attention during our visit.



View of Budapest and the Danube from the ramparts of Fisherman’s Bastion.


The Matthias Church, named for Hungary’s King Matthias.


Statue of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king and patron saint.

As we headed away from the Matthias church, our guide stopped us by a small white car parked in what appeared to be the center of the cobblestone street. A Trabant, an East German relic from the Communist period, it made the Datsun 1200 my mother drove in the 70s look as luxurious as a Jaguar. Our guide spoke passionately and eloquently about the difficulties of day-to-day life during Communism. For decades, the Trabant was the only car the average Hungarian could hope to afford. It was notorious for its tiny engine, heavy black exhaust, and hard plastic body made of recycled materials. Months and sometimes years passed between the time of order and delivery. But it could carry four people and some luggage. Our guide clearly considered the sad-looking little car a symbol of the daily indignities the Hungarian people suffered during the totalitarian regime.


The East-German-made Trabant, a relic of the Communist period.

After parting with the Trabant, we had free time to walk on our own. Just steps away from the busy area of the Bastion, the narrow streets were quiet and serene on this beautiful Palm Sunday morning. My parents accompanied D and me for a while, but before long they headed back to the bus, leaving us for more adventurous exploring.  We like to go “off road” when we have the chance.  I’ve learned that beauty often hides in unexpected spots.  Winding around behind the rather sleepy Budapest Hilton, we found a secluded brick and stone stairway of medieval appearance that led down to the wild and overgrown banks of the Danube.  Through window-sized openings in the massive stair wall, the distant towers of Parliament could have been Sleeping Beauty’s spellbound castle.  Much like during our meanderings through the Four Seasons the night before, we seemed to have Budapest to ourselves. We had stumbled upon another marvelous secret in this ancient, enchanting city.  My daughter and I will always remember Budapest as a gracious place that seemed eager to greet us, to reveal something truly special when we took the time to really look.


The towers of Parliament glimpsed through the stair wall.


D enjoys a lookout post in the wall.

Best of Budapest, Part I

The Chain Bridge, seen from the Pest side of the Danube. Thanks to my daughter for her night photos.

After dinner, my father, daughter and I went out for a short night walk to see Budapest in all its illuminated glory. We felt lucky to have the chance to stand on the pedestrian walkway of the Chain Bridge and gaze at the panorama that stretched out all around us. The city was decked out as if for a fantastic party, its many towers, domes and statues bathed in a silvery glow, the bridges dotted with small white lights. 

From the roadway of the Chain Bridge. The domed Buda Castle is illuminated at left.

Just beyond the grand arches and reclining lions of the bridge was the magnificent Art Nouveau façade of the Gresham Palace, since 2001 the Four Seasons Hotel. It beckoned, and so we wandered through the soaring public rooms of the ground floor. Amiable doormen and staff greeted us warmly, evidently happy that we were ambling freely through the sparsely peopled space. There was no pressure to buy anything or to defend our right to be there. The hotel’s peaceful, rather dreamlike atmosphere was the perfect prelude to our first night’s sleep on the ship, which would remain docked by the Chain Bridge.

The dramatic Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel, built in 1904.
The vast expanse of Heroes’ Square.

The next day we boarded Viking Cruise buses for a tour of the city. These are the vehicles that my husband so detests, perhaps because he associates them with old age and being trapped in a confined space with other old people. I have no such complaints; I thoroughly enjoyed the buses, with their comfy seats, wall-to-wall windows and high vantage point. We began on the Pest side, proceeding at a leisurely pace along the wide Andrassy Avenue, Budapest’s Champs-Élysées.  We passed magnificent homes and the palatial Neo-Renaissance Opera House, famed for its near-perfect acoustics. The street ends at the vast plaza of Heroes’ Square, with its dramatic Millenium Monument commemorating the city’s thousandth anniversary in 1896. Its many statues, in green oxidized bronze, depict tribal leaders and rulers of Hungary throughout the country’s exceptionally long history. With their flowing hair, exuberant drapery, fierce and determined gazes, the Hungarian heroes resemble fairy-tale figures rendered in three dimensions. Bordering the square are rambling Neo-Classical temples which house two of the city’s large art museums.

Partial view of the Millenium Monument, Heroes’ Square.

Before we left the bus to explore Heroes’ Square, our guide, a native of Budapest, warned us to ignore the gypsies that target tour groups. Sure enough, a dozen or so women seemed to appear out of nowhere, sidling up to us silently, exhibiting macramé sweaters crocheted from gilded and brightly colored yarn. They nodded solemnly, looking from sweater to tourist, as though to suggest that the purchase of such a flattering garment might be one’s supreme fashion decision. As roaming city vendors go, to us they seemed respectful and non-threatening, a far cry from the loud and aggressive sidewalk merchants of Paris. My mother and I both considered buying a sweater simply because the women were polite and looked so hopeful. Our guide had said the gypsies tend to overcharge and have been known to give change in counterfeit bills. I might as well have made a purchase, since we needed cash only for our admission to the baths.  I returned home from the trip with enough, presumably real, Hungarian currency to have bought several of the low-cost sweaters. Those unused forints are stored somewhere in a drawer, awaiting a second chance to rove with Budapest’s Gypsies. I hope they’ll get that opportunity.

Local Color at Budapest’s Thermal Baths

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It was such a relief to be on the plane that the physical discomfort of an overseas flight in coach couldn’t really touch me. I was no longer worried. D and I synchronized True Grit on our seat-back video screens, pausing at regular intervals to try to decipher Jeff Bridges’ mumblings.  At the Munich Airport we made our way along endless meandering hallways, up and down countless stairs, to reach the gate for our flight to Hungary. Several hours later, we were at the Budapest Airport, where the cheerful Viking Cruise staff awaited us.

Our ship was docked in the heart of this ancient and strikingly beautiful city, immediately adjacent to the majestic Chain Bridge. The room that D and I shared looked out onto the bridge and the hilly Buda side of the city, with Buda Castle and the medieval Matthias Church nearby.  A bit farther away, we could see the sleek new Elizabeth Bridge and the statue-topped Gellert Hill. My parents’ room was across the hall facing the flatter Pest side of the city.

Hungary is a land of abundant hot springs. Budapest has more than twenty thermal baths, all owned and operated by the government. According to every guidebook I consulted, the quintessential Hungarian experience is a trip to one of these baths. In the most celebrated baths, indoor and outdoor pools are grandly enclosed by elegant nineteenth-century architecture. We chose to visit the recently renovated Széchenyi Baths, which attract fewer tourists than the more upscale Gellert Baths. The friendly young woman at our ship’s concierge desk happily called a taxi when we inquired about getting to the baths. Our driver, a pleasant, talkative woman about my age, was soon whisking D and me through the city in her spotless white Mercedes. We left my parents to relax and unpack on the boat.  In a quick ten minutes, we had arrived at the ornate entry building.

To foreigners, the entry procedure at the Széchenyi baths can be befuddling, to say the least. Few attendants speak English, and the notoriously difficult Hungarian language can hardly be picked up in a weekend with the help of a phrase book. Rick Steves’ e-book on Budapest offers a comprehensive guide to negotiating the baths.  I had reviewed it on the plane, but we were still confused. Upon entering, one pays admission and rental for either a locker or a changing cabin. In anticipation of a trip to the baths, I had exchanged some dollars for Hungarian forints (a currency I find just as confusing as getting into the baths). Like a child, I paid by laying out the money and letting the attendant point to the required bills.  I thought I had rented a changing cabin, so we wandered through the complex until we found that area, only to be told that we had paid for a locker. We roamed through additional subterranean corridors and finally located the women’s locker room. An attendant attached a wristband to my arm and showed us how to activate the lock using the attached metal disk.

Having worn our bathing suits under our clothes, it wasn’t long before we were back in the labyrinthian halls in search of the towel rental station. In an effort to be upstanding guests, we hadn’t smuggled towels with us from the boat. Next time we will not be so virtuous. The rental towels bore little relation to typical American terrycloth towels. Made of smooth heavy cotton, they were more like tablecloths. For those desiring further adventure during their baths experience, bathing suits can also be rented.

Getting out to the pools was easy, and it was wonderful to be in the open air again. Surrounded by the golden yellow Neo-Baroque buildings housing the entrance area, indoor baths, saunas and massage rooms, there are three spacious outdoor pools. The afternoon temperature was in the high 60s, and the warm water felt amazing. We spent most of our time in the semicircular “Fun Pool” which has a current circle in the center. We kept to the less populated edges.

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 The “Fun Pool” where we spent most of our time.

The clientele was primarily Hungarian, although we heard various other languages, including British and American English, French, German and Russian. I have never before seen such an eclectic variety of swimming attire. And no, this is not one of Budapest’s several “clothing optional” baths.  Hefty grandfatherly men strutted about in tiny Speedos. Svelte young model types posed at the water’s edge in daring bikinis and spike heels. A number of older, well-covered women protected their hair with puffy shower caps. In the center lap pool, a cap is required. While some swimmers wore actual bathing caps, others sported baseball or shower caps.

The water began to feel cooler after a while, so we decided to have a look at the indoor baths. I was hoping for warmer water there. These pools were far more crowded than those outside. Along the edges, people, mostly men, stood shoulder to shoulder, staring unabashedly at any newcomers who ventured in. I was determined to test the water, so I made a quick circuit of the interior until I found a spot where the multitude was less pressing. When I dipped my foot in, the water was no warmer. We gladly returned to the unintimidating outdoor pools.

As the time approached to meet our taxi driver, the late afternoon air was taking on a serious chill. The abject deficiency of our rented towels made it difficult to emerge from the water. Our completely saturated tablecloths were icy and offered no comfort. Other towels, real, fluffy towels, folded invitingly, temptingly, seemed to mock us. I hope to never again feel such overwhelming towel envy. The comparative warmth of the taxi was especially welcome. We were invigorated by our plunge into the warmth and local color of the Széchenyi Baths.  And we were glad to return to our floating haven on the Danube, which appeared even more inviting than it had at first sight.

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The “Relaxation Pool” where some bathers play chess.

Helpful note on payment: Mastercard and Visa are accepted at the baths, which allows you to avoid dealing with forints.  Our taxi driver preferred to be paid in Euros.

Anticipating Disaster on the Danube


I still find it hard to believe that a little over a year ago, my daughter, my parents and I were on our way to Budapest. We had decided, uncharacteristically, to use spring break for a Danube River cruise. Typically, we go no place more exotic than Atlanta during this time. Even more typically, we rest, recharge and sleep late. But the European river cruise was highly recommended by several friends, and we had been considering it for a few years. The time was right, it seemed. None of us, after all, was getting any younger or healthier. The longer we put it off, the more medications we’d have to drag along, and the less sure-footed my parents and I would be on ancient, uneven cobblestones and cathedral steps.

My husband opted out, as I had expected. He likes to remind us that he doesn’t get a spring break.  He had accompanied me and my parents on a trip to France when our daughter was three. One European vacation with the in-laws, he decided, was sufficient. The river cruise, with its set itinerary, didn’t appeal to him; he preferred a more free-ranging vacation. Had he come, we would have needed another stateroom on the ship, or a suite. Traveling in uneven numbers isn’t ideal for river cruises.

The previous September, when I had asked my parents about the Danube cruise, they responded enthusiastically. I had found what looked like the perfect trip, with a stop in Regensburg, where Daddy had been stationed with the American occupational forces after World War II. His time in Germany had been cut unexpectedly short, when his father died suddenly. Daddy had not returned, and he was beginning to think he never would. While Mama, a dedicated Anglophile, would have preferred another trip to England, she was fine with Germany. My daughter’s top vacation choice would have been a bustling Caribbean cruise, but she was happy to be going to Europe for the first time. I looked forward especially to accompanying my father to Regensburg, an unspoiled medieval town that was spared wartime damage. I loved it that he would be returning with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.

As the departure date approached, my excitement gave way to anxiety. I would have worried less if my husband had been coming with us. While we disagree about the highlights of travel (I prefer historical sight-seeing, he goes for action and adventure), he has a gift for keeping a clear head and making good decisions when adversity arises. As Mama once noted, while H drove us calmly out of Paris, after negotiating various bewildering aspects of French bureaucracy at the airport and rental car agency, he would be a formidable contestant on The Amazing Race. Not long after we had begun dating, we were on our way to Newark Airport in my VW Rabbit, when it broke down on Route 1. I was headed to Michigan for a friend’s wedding.  H spotted the office of a car service, persuaded the owner to awaken the off-duty driver (her son), and got me back on the road in no time.  As I waved goodbye to H, who waited beside the Rabbit for a tow truck, I had complete confidence that he and the car would make it back to Princeton safely.  From that moment, I began to see his potential as a permanent feature in my life.

Without H on this upcoming trip, I would be the Adult in Charge, and that was frightening. It had been nearly ten years since I was in Europe, but, as I tried to remind myself, I was no travel neophyte.  I had spent a summer in France during college, and as a grad student I had become accustomed to traveling throughout Europe, with friends, family, even alone. I had enjoyed it. I had not been riddled with misgivings. As for my parents, they are sturdy and capable travelers. They visited me during the year I lived in England, and we zipped around the countryside for three weeks in a rented red Ford Escort. We explored out-of-the-way castles and hard-to-reach ruins that only the locals knew about.

But we were all younger then. So much younger, it appears, when I see the photos from those trips. Still, none of us is ancient, doddering or especially fragile, and we have my daughter to help us. Even as a baby, she was a spirited and adventurous traveler. While fellow airline passengers crossed themselves during bouts of turbulence, she was all smiles, clapping her chubby hands and yelling “Whee!.” She had grown into a highly competent traveling companion. Like most of her peers, she has a facility for technology. She is her father’s daughter, and she would be a good stand-in for him. We would be fine, I told myself over and over. We would have a wonderful trip.

But then again, what if? What if one or more of us got sick? What if someone fell or met with an accident? I remember taking a flying fall on the marble steps of a Renaissance church in Italy. I couldn’t afford to do that now. What if my parents’ passports, which expired in five months instead of the recommended six, led to some difficulty? This point caused me extreme consternation, and after many calls to various European embassies that should have eased my mind, I was still worried. What if, after all these plans, we couldn’t make this trip? Or what if we did, and disaster struck? What if, what if. . .. The what ifs were exhausting me.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, similar worries dogged my parents. Our family tends to make plans eagerly for a date that appears comfortingly far-off. As the actual event nears, the second-guessing starts. It’s tempting to say, “Oh, never mind. Let’s just stay home.” Stay safe, be comfortable, avoid the risk.

But the time was ticking by, and it looked like this trip was going to happen. The day arrived when Mama and Daddy drove up from Atlanta, healthy and looking good. We would be flying overseas together, first to Munich, followed by a short connecting flight to Budapest. I expected that once we were on the plane, my worries would vanish. The river cruises cater to a predominately elderly clientele because so many of the usual travel worries simply disappear.  We would be in the capable hands of the Viking River Cruise staff.  The ship would be our well-equipped floating hotel.  On land, we would, no doubt, be herded onto “motor coaches” like preschoolers on a field trip, but unlike H, I was fine with that.

The weeks of worry were at an end.  We would soon be flying to Hungary.

On the left bank, the hills of Buda. On the right, Pest, with the dome of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building.


Back When the Movies were Big, and the Theatre was a Palace: Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox

My trove of movie memories was neatly packed, sealed, and hidden away in my mind, and it took a while to access them. I’ve grown so accustomed to the ease of home viewing, of DVDs, streaming video and Tivo, that I had nearly forgotten the thrill of the old-time movie-going experience.

Having grown up in Atlanta during the 60s and 70s, my most colorful movie memories center on the Fox Theatre, which opened in 1929. Originally intended as the Yaarab Temple Mosque, national Shriners’ headquarters, its flamboyant style is best described as Islamic with touches of Egyptian. When escalating costs jeopardized the project, William Fox stepped in and oversaw the completion of the building as his newest movie palace. The fanciful exterior is a wealth of onion domes, minarets, ornate tile work and arched colonnades.

The movie that stands out most clearly among the many I saw at the Fox was, strangely, a re-release of Disney’s Song of the South, truly a remnant from another world. I was with a group of fifth-grade friends, and it was the first time a parent had dropped us off at the theatre. Maybe the movie was chosen by that parent simply for its “G” rating. Had we been younger, we might have taken some delight in the singing, dancing, southern dialect-spewing animals of the Uncle Remus stories. We were mature enough to be uncomfortable watching wise and contented former slaves extolling the joys of life on the old plantation. (Because it is now generally considered a racially offensive film, it has never been released in its entirety on VHS or DVD.)

The movie wasn’t a good fit for us, but it didn’t matter, because the Fox Theatre was dazzling. Gilded opulence was everywhere, from the box office window, to the concession stand to the luxurious Ladies’ Lounge (no mere utilitarian restrooms for the Fox). The auditorium was vast and atmospheric, with nearly 5,000 seats. It resembled an enchanted courtyard from the Arabian Nights. Before the movie began, we marveled at the gradually darkening and slowly rotating twilight sky above, flickering with crystal stars and the occasional drifting, wispy cloud. Just before show time, the famous pipe organ rose from the orchestra pit. The second-largest theatre organ in the U.S., it filled the great space with the music of an entire orchestra, a variety of brass instruments and sound effects, such as thunder and lightning.

By the mid 70s, as potential movie-goers flocked to the suburbs, the Fox was struggling financially. Down at the heels and seedy, it had become the Blanche DuBois of movie palaces. The City of Atlanta, always quick to move on in the name of progress, proposed demolishing the theatre to make way for Southern Bell’s new headquarters. This plan awakened Atlantans, at long last, to the urgent need for hometown historic preservation. (The city’s once-magnificent Terminal Station, designed in the Spanish Mission style by the architect of the Fox, had been torn down in 1972.)

Perhaps because so many Georgians clung to their own unforgettable memories of the old theatre, the Save-the-Fox campaign gained support quickly. The building was not only saved, but eventually fully restored. It now serves as a popular concert venue, with a film series every summer, complete with organ sing-a-longs. The historic old girl looks better than ever. Blanche has bucked up, gone through rehab, become fit and healthy. An active, happy grandmother, it looks as though she has many good years ahead.

My daughter has never been to the Fox.  My husband hasn’t either, although he and I have eaten dinner across the street at the Georgian Terrace, while crowds flocked to a performance of Celtic Woman. I hope we can catch a summer movie at the Fox this year, so H & D can see that magical, indoor amethyst sky.

Memory: Persistently Disintegrating and Rebuilding


If time moves at a bewildering pace, memory is equally problematic. Over the years, I have clung to certain recollections, the details etched in my mind with crystalline clarity, only to realize later that they are erroneous.

I was absolutely sure, for example, of the enormity of the airplane on my first overseas flight. As I remember it, in coach there were four seats across on the two side rows and ten in the center. I thought my friend Jackie and I were in that miserable middle section. A frail, elderly couple was marooned in the very center, and I felt terrible for them. Recently, when I found my notes from the trip, I read in my own eighth-grade cursive that there were three seats on each side row and only four in the center.  I had been so sure about that central row of ten. While this may seem an insignificant point, in my mind it had been pivotal. It was hard proof of the plane’s great size and cattle-car conditions.

I am not alone in my flawed remembrance. Recently, the iron-clad nature of the eye-witness account, once accorded special precedence in crime solving, has been cast into doubt. A witness may be supremely confident of what or whom he saw, but still he may be dead wrong. Perception is likely to be flawed in various ways, including the angle of vision, circumstances surrounding the viewing of the event, even one’s emotional state at the time. Memory is not set in stone, but prone to suggestion and easily colored by prior and later experience. It’s an ongoing drama being constantly reshot. As time passes, our memories both erode and build up piece by tiny piece, like shifting beach sand in a storm. Salvador Dali’s paintings of melting clocks capture this truth: over time, memory is simultaneously persistent and disintegrating.

Memories of early childhood are especially likely to be compilations, aggregates of our own experiences and accounts of older friends and relatives. Photos may trick us into believing we remember, when we do not. I think I recall playing on my swing set when it was set up behind the chicken lot at my grandparents’ house. I may remember using the dining room table as a secret fort before Thanksgiving dinner, reaching up surreptitiously to grab a piece of turkey. Guess I’ll never know if these memories are mine or borrowed.

In one of my most vivid memories, I’m about four years old, catching lightning bugs with two friends on a warm Kentucky summer night. The vision is suffused with a heavy Keatsian Ode to a Nightingale atmosphere. There are “verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways” and “fast-fading violets covered up in leaves.” Jarringly, amidst all that tender poetic beauty, there intrudes the sharp and uninvited recollection that the bubble gum I was chewing began to taste much like the pungent scent of the fireflies. Did this really happen? Maybe it did. As Proust has famously observed, the sense of taste can transport us miraculously into the long-ago. He had his tea-dipped madeleine; I had my insect-infused bubble gum. Perhaps if I were to sample lightning bug gum again, I would know for sure.

Memory is perversely selective. The most trivial of objects and events may be fixed indelibly and inexplicably in our minds. Yet unless we have consciously prepared ourselves beforehand, crucial episodes slip away with barely a trace. Faces of loved ones fade and blur. I don’t remember visiting my grandfather in the hospital before he died. I remember the blue dress I wore to his funeral, and I think I recall kissing him as he lay in his coffin. My shock at the firm, marble-like coldness of his face rings true, but who knows?

Memory, like life, is a work in progress, a bubbling stew of the inconsequential and the profound, the ridiculous and the significant. In both memory and life, the miscellaneous threads may tangle. We tend to look for meaning where it doesn’t exist, and fail to recognize it when we stumble upon it. Yet dead ends may lead us on new and better paths. When I’m struck by a memory’s mingled richness, sweetness and bitterness, it’s comforting to remember that it’s the taste of life itself.


Seems like I remember playing in my grandfather’s 1951 Dodge with my friend Bob.  It was the old car Grandaddy used for his errands in town and trips to the tobacco barn. My grandmother wouldn’t let him drive her much newer car, a Chrysler with pronounced fins.

The only thing I remember clearly about this day is the Sugar Daddy I was eating. It was very cold, and we were about to go somewhere.

Are you puzzled by the strangeness of some early memories?
Wonder why you recall certain details clearly and forget the main story?  I’d love to hear about it.